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While I certainly enjoyed myself at TAM London this year, not everyone seems to be a fan.

The most prominent and contentious criticism – not of the particular way things went down at the conference itself, but of the very concept of even holding such an event – seems to be the Champagne Skeptics post from Gimpy. Holding a massive event such as TAM is, to his mind, “too expensive, insular and divisive”, and detrimental to the skeptical movement.

The main worry, which he’s repeatedly expressed on Twitter, seems to be of having one single organisation take over and monopolise the very notion of skepticism, at the expense of more widely accessible grass-roots movements. He’s worried about it turning into an elitist, selective business only available to those with enough money to make it to the occasional back-slapping gathering in a posh hotel.

It all seems very odd to me. Until barely a year ago, The Amaz!ng Meetings were something that had never happened outside Las Vegas, Nevada (except the original gathering of 150 JREF forum members in Florida in 2003), and were attended by a few hundred people exactly once a year. If this lone annual event was capable of somehow dominating the skeptical movement, the movement itself could never have taken off in any way.

It’s true the meetings were exclusive, and attracted big names like smaller local events couldn’t, and had a very high ticket price (it’s a charity fundraiser, after all) – but who has ever had their entire notion of what the skeptical movement is about defined solely by these meetings?

I’d considered myself a part of the skeptical movement for a long time before first attending TAM in London last year, because of my participation in blogs and on Twitter. I met two people at this year’s TAM who I knew, and who knew me, as a result of this online participation. (It could’ve been more if I wasn’t so shy about introducing myself to people strolling by.)

And I hadn’t even gone to a single one of the numerous local meet-ups available, whose total attendance far surpasses TAM collectively. These events are a regular fixture in the calendars of many people I know, TAM attendees included, and a source of just as much fun and inspiration as the occasional massive conference. People are regularly motivated and inspired by the chance to spend some time with like-minded people, on a smaller scale as well.

There have been two new Skeptics in the Pub groups inspired directly by this year’s TAM London (Ealing and Cheltenham & Gloucester, I believe). There were a number of more accessible fringe events associated with the conference, taking place the week of the event, such as a pub quiz costing £2 on the door to get in. It’s rejuvenated people’s excitement about the skeptical movement’s potential, as well as getting some media attention and alerting a greater number of the general public to the fact that gossiping about sciencey stuff in a pub is a thing that other people do.

My point is: how is grassroots skepticism being hurt by one costly event, once a year, happening amidst a flurry of other activity driven solely by personal passion and commitment?

The skeptical movement is all about the grassroots work done by people who feel strongly about something and want to do some good in their own time. James Randi and his organisation have been huge supporters of some of the major skeptical victories of recent times, such as Simon Singh’s libel case, or the ongoing battle to stop the NHS funding homeopathy. These things don’t need TAM or the JREF, but they’re all part of the same picture.

Rhys Morgan has become a skeptical superstar just in the last few months, entirely because of work he’s done off his own back to counter quack medical claims, and his online involvement with the community. At this year’s TAM London, he was given the award for Grassroots Skepticism, and was given the fastest standing ovation I’ve ever seen, but that was barely even relevant to what he’d achieved with the support of the rest of the skeptical movement. TAM recognised and promoted the value of this, and proudly, but the JREF had no direct influence in anything important.

Alom Shaha was somewhat less infuriating on this point, but still doesn’t seem capable of making any important points or offering good advice – like about skeptics engaging directly with schools – without expending far more effort demeaning some of the activities that so many are already finding purpose in.

The problem with this is highlighted acutely in a comment by shockingblu, a newcomer to the skeptical movement, excited to meet people from whom he could learn and with whom he could share ideas, but who’s trying not to be discouraged by all the skeptic-bashing coming from other skeptics, and the “barrage of accusations” about what he’s supposedly doing wrong.

So, I don’t have much time for this rather tedious bashing of what seems to be a positive effort to do something good. And Martin Robbins has rebutted much of it far more eloquently than I have, anyway, in a comment on Gimpy’s posterous; I can’t link to the comment directly, but search the page for ‘Martin Robbins’ and you’ll find it about halfway down.

A rather more interesting critical take was provided by Crispian Jago, who enjoyed much of the event but with some reservations, and some good points are being made in the ensuing comments.

And further worthwhile thoughts arise courtesy of David Allen Green – who was also on great form at the event itself, which I shamefully neglected to mention in my own write-up.

Perhaps the strongest criticism he makes is of the “essentially negative” nature of skepticism itself. It’s worth noting that, if it’s the process which possesses this feature, then this is not a problem with the way the skeptical movement is currently presenting itself. Rather, it’s a factor which the movement should be aware of and account for when deciding how and where to direct its energies.

And in some sense, he’s obviously right. Skepticism tends to be largely about the denial of improbable claims, which is necessarily a negative action, about breaking things down.

But just about everyone I’ve encountered in the skeptical community understands that there can be more to it than this, and there should be if it’s going to be worth participating in things. They don’t gather in pubs or conference centres to talk for hours about how everything’s shit. They’re building friendships, and professional connections, and having fun, and enjoying each other’s company, and launching libel reform campaigns. And often joking (and occasionally ranting) about things that are shit.

Well then. There we are.

Not my most insightful or well constructed piece, if you ask me. The really smart people are probably the ones staying out of all this nonsense and just concentrating on getting shit done.

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I was at TAM London 2010 last weekend.

Then I visited family for a bit, then I came home and continued being lazy. And now I’m finally getting back to writing things again.

So. How was it?

Brief summary: pretty fucking great.

More detail? Well, Martin Robbins’s live blogging is still up on the Guardian site, which describes many more wonderful moments than I’ll be able to cover in my own highlights, which read as follows:

  1. The Amateur Transplants were brilliant, doing the occasional ten- or fifteen-minute set mostly while other people were warming up. If you’re unfamiliar with their work, they do stuff like this.
  2. Richard Wiseman did another excellent job as compère, keeping things flowing in between the speakers and sporadic technical mis-haps, and providing a series of magic tricks and odd illusions that tend to be just slightly more clever than you think they’re going to be.
  3. I’d not seen Sue Blackmore in person before, or read much of her work, but I might have to now. She talked about her experience of taking drugs as a hippy student and spending much of the next decade looking for evidence of the paranormal phenomena she was convinced that she’d witnessed. She did experiment after experiment for years, trying to find proof of psychics, or life after death, or something. And even when being rigorously honest with herself, it took a long time before she could accept it as mere empty wishful thinking, and the frustration still stings today.
  4. To be honest, I didn’t think Dawkins was quite at his most lively. I don’t think I disagreed with a thing he said – the theme of his speech being that the study of evolution has all the horizon-broadening educational benefits often attributed to a study of the classics – and perhaps it would be asking a bit much that someone a few months shy of turning 70 should be anything like as energetic as, say, Cory Doctorow (who spoke immediately after Dawkins and was exactly as engaging and persuasive as he always has been in his online columns).
  5. James Randi was there in person this time, having been held up by his ongoing chemotherapy last year. I actually shook his hand, too. With this very hand here, that I’m using to type this sentence. Can you feel the awesome vibrational energy transferring across to you as you read it? No, of course you can’t, because that’s all bollocks. Randi could’ve told you that.
  6. I described Tim Minchin as my personal highlight of last year’s event, and I wasn’t alone in that at the time. His evening show was pretty spectacular this time around, too. He performed several new songs, though nothing quite as heartbreaking as his last set, but the star of the show was the Storm movie, the animated video to accompany his nine-minute beat poem and skeptical anthem. It still needs some final tweaks, apparently, but it’ll be up on YouTube sometime in the new year. My only teaser: Epic.
  7. That said, the video interview with Stephen Fry was one of a very short list of things which would actually have benefited from a little less Tim Minchin. I know you want to have a chat with the guy, but when it comes to Stephen Fry, any action you take that isn’t “let him talk for as long he wants to talk, about whatever he wants to talk about” is probably a bad move.
  8. I set off from home a little late on Sunday morning, and so wasn’t there right from the start. In fact, at the exact moment I entered the lecture hall, Marcus Chown was just saying “…so, you see, it’s really easy to build a time machine”. So now I’m the one skeptic who’s falling behind the rest of the class on time travel. Dammit.
  9. PZ Myers was great value, and mercilessly ripped into his nemesis, Phil Plait, by… generally agreeing with him and expressing respect and admiration for the guy while differing in opinion on certain points. It was brutal. I didn’t know quite how seriously to take his claim that he’d heard Tim Minchin perform the Pope Song the night before, realised that this was basically a more succinct and catchy version of the speech he was planning to give, and had to put together a whole new presentation overnight – but, if true, I’m willing to forgive him the Powerpoint walls of text.

  10. I’m slowly becoming more competent at the whole social aspect of meetings like this, which for many people is a crucial part of the whole thing. My “hands shaken with people I recognised off of the internet” count for the weekend stands at 3: the aforementioned Randi; Carmen, who I recognised when she was sorting out my pass; and Hywel, who has the dubious honour of being the first person ever to approach me and ask if I was “the Cubik’s Rube guy”. (I was!)
  11. Having said that, the tally of “people I realised I’d just walked past but didn’t quite had the nerve to interrupt whatever they were doing just to say hello” grew even more this year. They included Rebecca Watson, Simon Singh, Jane Goldman, Mil Millington and Margret, and Rhys Morgan, who’d just been given the Grassroots Skepticism award for his work fighting the spread of dangerous fake medicine in the bleachgate kerfuffle.
  12. Alan Moore. Yeah. Alan Moore. If you’ve seen him, you’ll know what I mean.

Not everyone was thrilled with how it went down, though. But now that I think of it, I’ll save that for another post, as this one’s getting pretty lengthy.

In short: I enjoyed myself at TAM London 2010 last weekend, I think the skeptical movement is going places, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

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…but never TAM to-day. Or something.

Tomorrow is the first day of TAM London.

TAM stands for The Amaz!ng Meeting. It’s a massive annual skeptical gathering, which started in Las Vegas and now has branches cropping up around the world.

The first ever international Meeting happened in London around this time last year, and I was there. It was great. And now I’m going to the next one.

If you’re reading my blog, you probably know about all this already. If you need more background explanation, visit the website, look at the list of speakers, and know that I’m the kind of person who gets hugely excited by the prospect of seeing biology professors, psychologists, and lawyers giving hour-long talks and panel discussions.

Also, if you’re reading my blog, there’s a chance you’re going to be there too.

I went and pre-registered today, which basically meant turning up at the hotel where it’s going to happen, collecting my ID badge ahead of time, and avoiding some of the queueing tomorrow morning. While there, I managed to boost my “hands shaken with people I’d never met before but who I recognised off of the internet” count by two. Namely: Carmen, who’s helping orchestrate the thing and gave me my badge, and James Randi, who was being photographed just outside the hotel entrance by a man who may have wanted me to get the fuck out of his shot.

This is what we call an awesome start.

But this leads me onto my point; it’s actually a pretty big deal for me to approach people who don’t know me and just introduce myself as if they had any reason to be interested. I’m really not an assertive or socially confident person, and tend to start feeling awkward and self-critical at a much greater rate than is normal or desirable when interacting with other people.

It might not sound like a massive conference with huge crowds of people is the ideal place for me to hang out. And you’d kinda have a point.

But I love this stuff. And I love the people who love this stuff.

So, if you’re going to be at TAM London this weekend and want to say hi to me, please do. If you know of me in any way, or if I might know of you, and you have anything at all you’d like to say, even if it’s just a quick hello in passing, then I heartily endorse this event or product endeavour.

But, you will need to bear in mind that there are times when I really suck at conversation even at the most basic levels. I may not have the nerve at any particular moment to take much initiative, in starting a conversation or contributing much to a particular topic. I may seem uncomfortable or frazzled, or like I’m not fitting in there or I want to be left alone.

None of this should put you off an attempt to be friendly, should you feel so inclined. I’m just making excuses ahead of time for if I seem closed-off, unresponsive, or uninterested. I’m not. Well, I might be kinda the first two. But I’m just hugely shy. Give me a chance.

I don’t have an iPhone or anything similar, and I’m not staying in the hotel with a laptop on hand, so I’m mostly going to be falling off the grid for the next couple of days as far as things like blogging and Twitter are concerned. I’ll catch up eventually.

Oh, and I’ll be the one looking more or less like this:

Goofiness of face is only an estimate.

Have a good weekend.

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I don’t know why I’m doing that. But I found that balloon earlier, which was in the goody bag fun pack thing from last year’s meeting, and thought it’d make a good picture. For some reason.

Anyway. I’m going along to TAM London again this year, and tickets are still available if you want to come too and see that hugely impressive list of speakers.

I don’t have much to add, except to chip in with my thoughts on the somewhat controversial subject of the price of the tickets. It’s up over £200 a head this time, which is a heckuva price tag, and not everyone’s thrilled about this.

I’m fine with it, though. For a start, they’re bringing in a lot of seriously impressive names to talk and mingle, as well as hiring out the Hilton Metropole Hotel for the whole event. Putting up 1,000 people for a weekend’s activities is going to require some funding.

Also, it’s a fundraiser. The reason this particular series of gatherings exists at all is to raise money for a charity organisation, namely the James Randi Educational Foundation. It would make sense to charge the highest possible price per ticket that they’ll be able to find a thousand people willing to pay. The idea that it “costs too much” becomes sort of meaningless, in that context. I might think that $140 million is orders of magnitude too much to pay for a Jackson Pollock painting, but it was allegedly worth it to some guy, so it really doesn’t matter what I think.

The other complaint that comes up from time to time is that setting the price so high excludes many ordinary people who can’t afford to splash out on such a high-budget luxury, and serves to make the skeptical community elitist and inaccessible to exactly the kind of everyday folk it should be trying to court.

And this might be a concern if the skeptical community didn’t thrive in so many other places. The most obvious example would be the Skeptics in the Pub meet-ups, which have dozens of locations all over the world now. My own local branch has two meetings coming up in June, each with a notable guest speaker, a chance to mingle with 250 fellow skeptics, and an entrance fee of £2. These are the occasions driven by activists and volunteers, to encourage involvement by anyone dipping their toe in on the fringes of the skeptical world, who don’t have the resources to commit to any more grand endeavours, or for whom it’s not yet worth it to go to such lengths.

TAM can exist in conjunction with these smaller, less pricey meetings. There’s no contradiction. It’s just a different flavour of occasion.

And of course there are numerous places online to join in with and become part of this community, without attending this one particular annual event. For examples, check out around 80% of my “Roll out the blogs!” list on the right.

One interested suggestion I’ve heard – annoyingly, I can’t remember where – is that all the big TAM speeches should be made available to watch for free online, in the spirit of TED. On giving not even a moment’s thought to the practicalities of this, I think it’d be a great idea. It would go a long way to making the event more accessible, and provide some excellent publicly available material with which to reach out to people not wholly on board with the skeptical movement at present. And I don’t for a moment imagine that any significant number of attendees would be put off from coming if they realised they’d be able to see most, or even all, of the talks online later, and save themselves the money. People still go to the cinema; they don’t just wait for the DVD.

(Speaking of which, as it happens I am still waiting for the DVD of last year’s TAM London, and I’m going to include a gripe about this here. They’ve had legitimate problems in getting it arranged – first with clearing some copyright issues, then with the production of the discs themselves – but the communication hasn’t been great, emails with status updates haven’t always gone out when they were promised, and it’s sometimes felt like we’ve paid our money and been left hanging. The organisation really could have been better on that one. Still, when I sent Sid a message on Facebook the other day, I got a direct personal reply with an update of the situation eleven minutes later, so they’ve not totally dropped the ball.)

As I was saying, I don’t know if a completely online, TED-like system would be at all practical, but I think it’d be wonderful if it could, and would strongly encourage anyone who knows anything to give some thought as to how it might be made to happen.

Whatever happens, this October should provide quite a show.

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A little background first, for those unfamiliar with what exactly is going on here.

The James Randi Educational Foundation is an organisation based out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with the intent of promoting critical thinking among the public, and trying to disseminate reliable information on subjects where credulity and irrationality abound. In January 2003, they held the first ever Amaz!ng Meeting, where 150 people gathered in Fort Lauderdale to hear a selection of prominent scientists and skeptics give lectures, and mingle with like-minded folk over several days.

The next year, it moved to Las Vegas, where it’s been an ever-growing annual event ever since. It’s expanded to include several Amaz!ng Adventures also, and this past weekend I was one of 600 attendees at the first international meeting, in London. Various awesome people spoke, lectured, mingled, answered questions, sang, danced, and fumbled comically with a number of technological hurdles.

So, the people I experienced over the weekend were as follows:

  1. Richard Wiseman compèred the whole thing, introducing each new speaker, keeping the crowd entertained with some jokes and semi-serious magic tricks while the next bit was being got ready, and covering whenever a technical hitch threatened to derail things. He did a fabulous job of being charming and (giving the illusion of) being in control throughout.
  2. Brian Cox, physicist and Supreme Allied Commander of CERN. Well, okay, he just works there. He spoke about the CERN lab, the Large Hadron Collider, and why he really believes that this kind of science is important and worth investing in. There were some great collider pics, including some of the damage caused when they broke it last year, and a more comprehensive explanation of just what went wrong than I’d heard at the time. There was also a lot of background info about particle physics, to explain exactly what it is they’re trying to do there. I’m a physics geek already, I’ve read books about string theory and quarks and extra dimensions of space-time, but I still felt like I learnt something new about the Standard Model. He’s a terrific speaker, with a real knack for making these potentially mind-mangling topics accessible and fascinating.
  3. Jon Ronson is hilarious and wonderful. In many ways, he might seem at first glance like a somewhat unlikely orator; he looks like a classic nerd, tends to hold his arms against himself a little awkwardly, and has an occasional head-nodding tic. But in actual fact, he has great stage presence and tells a hell of a story. He really knows how to make his encounters with crazy people sound touching, human, and very funny, both in print and in person, and provided some of the biggest laughs of the weekend.
  4. Simon Singh spoke about his ongoing libel case, giving some more background than we’d heard before and some interesting updates. He was also given an award by the JREF, for Outstanding Contribution To The Services Of Being A Fucking Hero. Or something like that. Seriously, I think the importance and bravery of what he’s doing, fighting for the right to speak openly and critically about scientific matters and standing as a figurehead for the campaign to change this country’s insane libel laws, is going to be looked back on with awe and amazement in years to come. He also broke the news that he and his wife are expecting their first child next year.
  5. James Randi, the man himself, who couldn’t attend the conference himself due to health issues, but appeared via a live video link-up, looking in good spirits and on fine form. He fielded some questions, and the computer equipment seemed to require mercifully little wrangling to make it happen.
  6. Ariane Sherine was an absolute delight to see in person. She seemed a little nervous at first, but not to a degree you could fault her for, given how much less often she’s done this than everyone else on the bill, and how effortlessly she was chatting with her audience within a few minutes. She told the story of the Atheist Bus Campaign, with some brilliant visual aids and musical montages. Hopeless geek crush #43729 blooms still.
  7. Mil Millington happened to be attending, and was recognisable by his hair. I love the guy’s writing, but he actually looked a little… Walter Kovacs-y. Yeah.
  8. Ben Goldacre was his usual awesome self. The bizarre details of the media’s approach to the MRSA thing in particular continues to blow my mind. I should write about that properly someday.
  9. Robin Ince hosted a comedy evening on Saturday. He chatted about Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman, as he ever does, but you could tell how thrilled he was at playing to a crowd who’ll respond with applause to names like that. The usual suspects were there: Josie Long, Christina Martin, Philip Jeays, and so forth. At times it felt pretty similar to the Night of 400 Billion Stars earlier in the year, but mostly they’re all such good company that this didn’t count against it at all.
  10. Adam Savage spoke about Mythbusters, which was fun. I’ve never really seen the show properly, but the clips I’ve been pointed to on the internet I’ve always enjoyed, and he was great to watch and listen to here. (I’ve skipped over the two acts before him on Sunday morning, because I gave myself a lie-in and didn’t get there until the start of Adam’s set. I’ve never been a huge George Hrab fan, and Glenn Hill’s name didn’t mean anything to me. He’s actually the son of one of the girls who took the Cottingley Fairies pictures, and in retrospect I would’ve quite liked to hear from him.)
  11. Tim Minchin. Holy fucking shit, Tim Minchin. Unbelievable. Highlight of the whole weekend. I mean, I knew the guy was good, but wow. He wasn’t there for long, but it was an incredible set. The awesomeness of Storm is barely diminished by the fact that I know it by heart, and the brief preview of the animated version being made looks like it’ll be fantastic when it’s finished. He did a couple of numbers I’d never heard before, which were musically brilliant and genuinely hilarious in equal measure. And his song about Christmas is perfect. Goddamn, that man is something special.
  12. Phil Plait, President of the JREF, spoke about skepticism in general, and his particular field of astronomy in particular. Much of it was a sort of preview of his latest book, Death From The Skies!, of which I picked up a copy in the foyer (along with a couple by Jon Ronson, and Bruce Hood’s Supersense).
  13. Heather and Colm, the only two people with whom I really managed any socialising. (If either of you happen to find this, say hi. I’m sorry we got separated before I could find out where to stalk you on Twitter.) I decided not to aim too high, in terms of personal expectations for social interaction. Everyone seemed nice and friendly and talkative, and I’m sure the random interruptions I would’ve loved to make to introduce myself would have been welcomed, but I’m not going to berate myself for not having the nerve to go up to any famous people off of the internet. I did fine, for me.

I guess that’s as good a link as any to some more general rumination. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting as regards the format of the evening, but from what I understand of the Vegas meetings, they’re generally in a pretty open-plan space, often with different things going on in different areas at the same time, and with various bars and other areas where it’s easy to gather and congregate when nothing big’s happening. TAM London was somewhat smaller in scale, and felt rather more regimented. Superb though all the presentations were, we did all just file in and out of the one auditorium together, and there wasn’t much going on in between except a general milling about. There were a few stalls downstairs, but nothing really conducive to natural socialisation.

In fact, Jon Ronson’s just twittered a link to this review, which makes a number of good points. I didn’t feel that everyone was being quite as isolated and monastic as it apparently seemed to Luke; I thought it was mostly just me. And I’m not sure to what extent it’s up to the organisers to get the socially awkward nerd demographic talking to people they’ve never met before, or how much it’s something we’ll just have to figure out by ourselves. But a bit more infrastructure in between the talks might be something to aim for next time. And I agree that somewhere to sit for the bangers and mash dinner would definitely have been nice, and possibly more conducive to conversation.

Anyway, that’s what I did with my weekend. I may not have been as socially interactive as some, but it got me out of the house, and I hope I’ll be able to attend an even bigger and better show next year.

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Eep. TAM London is happening in like nine hours. Still trying to figure out how to get there. I’m sure I’ll work something out.

Too distracted to have stuff to say here. Just hoping that I do okay tomorrow. And manage not to, like, totally suck at being present in a room with people. Honestly, it’s not a skill I’m known for, but I think it should go well. Wish me luck. See some of you there.

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Guess who’s just bought his ticket to TAM FUCKING LONDON, bitches!

(Hint: someone whose crappy annoying cold/flu symptoms had fucking better have cleared up properly by next weekend.)

Yeah, I’m still ill and have nothing to add today. Except that the new Skeptics’ Circle is up. Go there. I sleep now.

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